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Learning plateau; where to go from here?

PassacagliaPassacaglia Madison, WI✭✭✭✭
edited April 2012 in Technique Posts: 1,471
Hi all -

I don't really know where this is best posted, because it relates to several aspects of playing. I'll try here.

Aware that I'm going to DIJ, and knowing I will get a ton of things to work on there, I've hit something of a boredom slump that I'm getting through, really, by just slogging it out.

My emphasis has been almost exclusively on rhythm playing. After coming back to playing a few months back, basically it's been my goal to improve tone, endurance, and tempo-consistency while acquiring a jam repertoire of 25-30 tunes. I've leaned heavily "this" time around on Hono Winterstein's approach, as given in Denis' online school - working on acquiring something like 60+ tunes from memory, in the kind of simple, clean voicings and accompaniment philosophy as discussed by Denis, Michael, Hono, Gonzalo, many others. I can play most of these 60 with nominal reliance on grilles. Anyway, shooting for simple, "square and clean" accompaniment.

I find myself stymied as to next steps. I do love rhythm playing, and thought to just concentrate exclusively on it for the foreseeable future - basically, working Michael's rhythm book, really coming to understand harmony and get a technical and improvisational vocabulary of more advanced stuff - rhythm as a soloist might have, as chops.

That said, I've also kept up with lead work, to an extent. I came to the music because I love the melody and lead improv, and want to be able to do whatever I can in this way, admitting I'm 50 now and there isn't a blank slate of opportunity, in sheer years. I'm able to do most of Michael's picking book at about 120 or so, up to Picking Pattern 13.

I also take Denis' approach, simply trying to transcribe and use my ears to work on melodies. I have to be honest that it gets somewhat discouraging to hear the music, but plod pretty slowly through something as simple as Minor Swing. Digging a bit through the forum (should have been obvious), also seeing the value in concentrating on ballads to apply technique.

Anyway, apologies for the rambling post - probably a symptom of what I'm experiencing at the moment. Basically, wonder if any have any thoughts on focusing exclusively on rhythm, delving into its deeper mysteries, before continuing lead work, or pursuing both, as I'm doing now. And if so, what would be your call - arpeggios, arpeggios, arpeggios, transcribe, apply licks as they've been learned to chords/tunes?

In a word, any suggestions for next practice steps?

Thanks, all.


pas encore, j'erre toujours.


  • kevingcoxkevingcox Nova Scotia✭✭✭✭ Dupont MD50
    Posts: 298
    Hey Paul,

    I am very familiar with your situation, I go through regular slumps in my playing. I also think you have chosen the correct approach to learning GJ. I personally think it is absolutely useless to learn a bunch of solos if you can't hold down a proper and driving rhythm.

    The slog through learning solos is also something I am familiar with, but trust me when I say that it pays off in the long run. Much of my early learning was "book learning" and I feel that I am way behind on ear training.

    My first recommendation is to start learning the melodies to these songs you have learned. Learn them inside and out so that you can play "around" them and not just reproduce them.

    My second is to find a group of people that you can jam with every so often. It is really hard to keep things fresh when you are playing along to a backing track for the hundredth time. The other great thing is you start picking up little tricks that other people use and everyone gets better together.

    Early on it is really easy to get the feeling that you are doing all this practice for no real purpose, all your goals seem so far away. Mainly just try mixing it up to keep things interesting for yourself... it has even been shown that practicing the same way all the time is ineffective since your nervous system adapts and rather than getting better in an overall sense you just get very efficient at a limited number of things.

    Best of luck,

  • PassacagliaPassacaglia Madison, WI✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 1,471
    Thank you, Kevin. It's really good advice, and doubly comforting to know I'm not alone in this cyber-universe. You nailed so many things; obvious you've walked there before. Just a bit of a crossroads - can play the rhythm enough to know how little the tongue's tip taste is in reach, really. You nailed it - it's almost like I've enough now to pretty keenly feel how far off the "goals" are.

    It may be trite, but I came to this with Minor Swing (and it's kind of "flavor" - heard it years before I had any knowledge of Django at all, an old landlord with his pal playing duos at a weekly gathering of friends in L.A., Italian place) in mind, and it's almost a threshold I'll have to do, just be able to play it. Learning one tune well, I suspect, is better than getting lost in a kind of diaspora of all the tunes I'd like to play, but have not begun transcribing....better to work the hell out of Minor Swing, as an example, and use that process - the learning process of transcribing one tune - as a means to learn others - would you agree?

    And otherwise, suppose it wouldn't be the worst thing if I spend my time getting these 60 or so tunes rock solid, memorized, in terms of accompaniment.

    Cheers, thanks again.


    pas encore, j'erre toujours.
  • Something that I have been working of for the past year that helps both is working up single line and chord arrangements for each of the tunes I am working on.

    An easier way to start this would be to get Michaels Unaccompanied Django and learn those. Great for playing dexterity and and learning to be clean.

    Another thing that can help out of ruts is to play with others if possible.

    Final thought ..... learn the melody line in all different finger positions that you can figure out.

    I use Robin Nolan's backing tracks and play the rhythm during the melody statements and solo lines during the rhythm accompaniment. Work on one song several times through if you can - half an hour on one song of both rhythm and melody lines you should just about have it taped. Once you can play the melody line in all the different positions start embellishing the melody lines ... try not to get tooo far away on a solo just play with timing feel and and few of the notes so the melody and the harmonic structure become ingrained. By playing both rhythm and solo each time though you will be working up the switch between the two as happens in jamming. Sometimes I switch and chunk along with the rhythm track just to see how accurately I am keeping my rhythm going
    The Magic really starts to happen when you can play it with your eyes closed
  • PassacagliaPassacaglia Madison, WI✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 1,471
    These are great ideas Jazz, thanks. Though I think my skill level slows down the apprehension of lead lines - just started Je Suis Seul Ce Soir, pretty much got it right away, but 1937 Minor Swing, for whatever reason, I'm slogging it out. I started a thread on this somewhere else - but part of it might be exactly what you're suggesting, if I'm hearing you right. My predisposition was mostly vertical, it seems, or at least more vertical than the single string horizontality I saw after the fact, on another, "official" transcription.

    Is this what you mean by play the melody line in all different positions - just transcribe using as many ways to play it as possible?

    Great idea on the rhythm/lead conjunction. I came to a realization yesterday, listening again to Gonzalo, his beginning with 6-7 solos (and not Django solos, which he apparently felt were too unreachable...though I paraphrase) and working the hell out of them. Pleased with how much meat I could strip from Seul ce Soir (an admittedly easy tune, I know), I thought to just work this solely. Though it's almost like when I was a kid, and Stairway to Heaven was why I loved Zep, and music had to learn that tune. Minor Swing would be that for many warm connotations for why I came into this style at all, before I knew of Django, any of it.

    pas encore, j'erre toujours.
  • What I mean in the melody is the actual melody of the tune. Not someone's solo or take on it but going back to the simple plain ole melody, in many cases that would have been sung.

    Learning the words to the song, or even better learning to sing the song first and then playing it on your instrument, will provide a melodic and harmonic grounding.

    The next step is to add a little bit of embellishment to the melody, but sticking pretty close to it, so that the average listener would still easily recognize the tune. If you have a goal to get to know an average of one a week, (some learn better focussing deeply on one others will do better with less intense focus on several) at the end of a year you will have the melody line and rhythm down for 50 songs or so, be comfortable switching between the two and your fingers will have learned lots of new things.

    After that year start focussing more intensely on developing lead improv lines on either new songs (after you learn the basics) or go back and get deeper into the ones you know. IMO too many people try to learn to run by transcribing solos and stuff and they may learn that finger exercise but they dont have the basis to create their own vocabulary. There is no shortcut. If one wants to play lead well, one has to know the scales and all the different positions as well as being able to play rhythm well. :wink:

    I am back playing sax again and doing an hour a day on just scales and arpeggios on sax. I try and focus on stuff that I am not comfortable with and dont know well rather than repeating or improving in keys that I am comfortable in. :lol: not always succdessful but I dont get too hard on myself about it.
    The Magic really starts to happen when you can play it with your eyes closed
  • PassacagliaPassacaglia Madison, WI✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 1,471
    Thank you, Jazz, for your time in giving these thoughtful replies. I practice a fair amount - 3-5 hours a day - and I think because I've made some progress, I've got a better taste of this stuff than I once had, and also, bizarrely, because DIJ in June is coming up I'm trying to get enough lead chops so (1) I won't completely suck; and (2) I can perhaps take part in a more challenging class than Lead Level 1. I'm also 50, and I don't want to die before being able to play this music well. :oops:

    I realize nothing's to be gained from this. The last few weeks, all that's happening is that I'm a bit awash in everything but focus. You've been really helpful. Tim Robinson has also been a good amount of help, and I'd like to thank him as well. Curiously (or more likely, not curiously at all), both of you seem to be advocating along similar lines. Out of respect for his privacy, I won't go into the details of the conversation, but you both provided some really solid and helpful advice, and I wanted to publicly thank both of you. I realize I'm probably beating this horse to death in quest for a sure way forward, so thanks to everyone else who in one way or another has responded to this.

    I think I'm of the type that thrives better working on one tune (very much a medievalist's apprentice mentality - living with a Japanese master in a dojo/temple, and being a traditional French cook can do that to a person), so I think the plan going forward is to focus on the tunes I already know well enough in terms of accompaniment; learn the melodies; work Wrembel's book, to better understand arp shapes up and down the neck; and slow down expectations. Your framework of a tune a week for a year is a nice goal, rather than by June in a couple of months, will look to, well, down the road.

    Thanks again.


    pas encore, j'erre toujours.
  • Paul

    I am the same. I focus an learning deeply one song at a time

    Glad my words have helped. I wish I was still 50 :lol::lol: But at 60 I started a college degree in jazz performance on sax.

    Musically it has been one of the best things I have done as it blew me completely out of my rut

    The Magic really starts to happen when you can play it with your eyes closed
  • PassacagliaPassacaglia Madison, WI✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 1,471
    Jay, that's awesome, your starting your degree like this. I've got some body issues that bring me to moan about age from time to time, but I realize there's no choice but to go forward. Nice inspiration!

    Thanks again, fellas. My usual tortuous mind is warring between focusing on Minor Swing (a first love, before I knew what it was) and J'Attendrai or Seul Ce Soir as a tune for intensive work, both of which I enjoy. As much as I enjoy listening to the ballads (Nuages, Manoir), not so hot on playing them, at least not right now - though they're probably the best place to be, at my stage. So I'll probably be back on asking for the "perfect" starting tune for lead in a week or so. :D

    pas encore, j'erre toujours.
  • J'Attendria is as goog as any. Minor swing is good too but less harmonically useful as a learning tool

    First thing IMO is being able to sing the words while playing chords. Doesn't matter how bad a singer you think you are. It will give the song meaning and the rhythm isn't grooved until you can do that. Second is to smoothly play through the song with tasteful arpeggiated chord tones only. Once you can do that well just let yourself go and don't think about what you are playing. Just listen to the backing.
    The Magic really starts to happen when you can play it with your eyes closed
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